Archive for: July, 2007

On Science, Religion, and "Compartmentalization"

Jul 18 2007 Published by under Science & Religion

You will frequently hear certain anti-religion science bloggers and
commenters on these boards saying that the only way for a
non-atheist to be a good scientist is to "compartmentalize"— to
wall off a part of his mind while doing science, and likewise to wall
off the scientific part of his mind while thinking about his

Do I agree with this? Yes and no.

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179 responses so far

The Gruber Prize in Cosmology is awarded to, among many others, me

This is really cool. Several years ago, the Gruber Foundation established a prize in cosmology. Last year (2006) the award went to John Mather and the COBE team; you may recall that Mather was one of the two winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. This year the award is being split four ways: (1) Saul Perlmutter, leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP); (2) Brian Schmidt, leader of the High-Z Supernova Team (HZT); (3) the members of the SCP who were on the Perlmutter '99 paper; and (4) the members of the HZT who were on the Riess '98 paper. These two papers were the refereed-journal announcements to the world of the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. (Both teams had previously made announcements at conferences, starting with the January 1998 AAS meeting.) Anything you hear about Dark Energy today comes, to some degree, from that discovery. Although the term doesn't predate that discovery, scientific thinking about it does, and indeed goes all the way back to Einstein. However, the tremendous interest in it today comes from the observations of the accelerating Universe which told us that Dark Energy (a more general form of what is called the Cosmological Constant) is, probably, real.

What to me is coolest about this award is that it's going to the groups. Usually in science we honor and award the Warrior Hero, the single Big Name who was the brilliant and creative scientist who did everything. The Nobel Prize went to Smoot and Mather. Assuredly the reason for the Nobel Prize was extremely worthy, and assuredly those two gentlemen deserved it. But the Gruber prize recognized the team without which Mather could never have done the work that he did in order to win the Nobel Prize.

I will speak of the SCP, because that's where I was. HZT people, please don't feel neglected, but obviously I don't know the internals of that nearly as well.

As for the division, I like it. I think Saul Perlmutter really does deserve to split it halfway with "the rest of the authors of the paper." Saul was unambiguously the leader of that effort. It was Saul's vision, drive, tenacity, and confidence in the face of huge obstacles that let the high-redshift supernova search succeed in finding the kind of supernovae needed to make the measurement we needed to make. (It was luck, of course, not Saul's doing, that the measurement came out with such an amazingly cool and, to many, unexpected result.) But, of course, many of the rest of us devoted a lot of creative energy and talent into making this project work. I did my post doc from 1996-2001 with the Supernova Cosmology Project, the most exciting result of which was the Perlmutter '99 paper. I kept working with the SCP on this stuff for a few years after I got to Vanderbilt, culminating in the Knop 2003 paper. I, along with many others listed in the names of the "Supernova Cosmology Project," will never be a remembered name in the annals of the Warrior Hero Scientists, but it is nice to see the lot of us receive some real recognition as a group for the group effort that went into this remarkable discovery.

It's a $500,000 award, but given that I'm sharing a quarter of that award with about 30 other people, my payout will be a couple of orders of magnitude less. I may just be able to pay off a student loan that I've been paying down for a deade or so now....

The formal award will be on September 7 at the University of Cambridge. At the moment, I don't know if I will be able to attend. Not only is that expensive to get to, but it looks like it might directly conflict with travel I will need to be doing for the new job I'm going to be starting.

In the near future, I will try to write my "definitive" blog posting in which I describe, hopefully for a general audience, how the supernova observations tell us that the Universe is accelerating. I"ve given a few different talks about this to a popular audience, most recently at a few Shapley lectures this year, and in June 2006 at Hypericon.

19 responses so far

A pressure valve : Rob as Theist

Jul 16 2007 Published by under Rant, Science & Religion, Self

So that people don't feel the need to threadcrap in other threads, I open this thread here for people to make their flames, comments, insults, dismissals, expressions of support, and so forth.

I have said before that I'm a Christian. I had my three-part (one, two, three) set of posts in the past about being such, about the role I see for Christianity in the modern scientific age, and why I am Christian specifically (given the wealth of religious traditions available). I repeatedly echoed what you can read on the NCSE website (at this link and in other places): that there need be no conflict between science and religion— and that those who insist that there is a conflict, be they the creationists who distort science into something unrecognizable, or the antitheists who judge all of religion based on the behavior of the creationists, are missing the point.

Except for one or two people whom I've banned, feel free to comment here about all of these issues. Please avoid the "Rob can't be a good scientist because he's a theist" comments in other threads, for that will derail discussion about them. Put that sort of stuff here. If things get too vitrolic, I may stop reading in order to preserve my own sanity, but if you need to vent, please do it here and not in other threads.

46 responses so far

A farewell to academia

Loved the teaching. Loved the science. Couldn't take the politics. Couldn't take the tenure stress. That about sums it up.

I am sending off today a signed offer letter for employment with Linden Lab, the folks who create and run Second Life. I will be an engineer or ops/developer or something... wait, hang on. Here we go, "Productions Operations Engineer" is the title listed in the offer letter. I will write more about this in the near future, and probably a lot more in the ongoing future. Let me say, though, that I'm very excited to be going to work for Linden. A lot of the rest of this post is going to sound negative, because this post is all about academia. However, I don't want it to sound like Linden is "just my escape valve." It was the only job I applied for this summer-- so I wasn't entirely looking to flee, but saw some things very positive about this job in particular. If you had asked me what I wanted to be back in 9th or 10th grade, I probably would have said "computer programmer." So, in a sense, I'm finally getting back on track where I was in 1984 or thereabouts.

As for academia... it is not without a lot of regret that I decide to leave. I will be giving things up, and I'm fully aware of that. I will mourn leaving academia. My mother said to me a couple of weeks ago when I was out in the SF Bay Area interviewing at Linden that she thought I have a real gift for teaching. I said, perhaps (having read some really nasty student evaluations, it's difficult for me to fully admit that), but it's OK if we all have gifts and talents that we don't use in our primary vocation. She strongly agreed with this. I will really miss the teaching. I will miss playing around with the advanced physics and astronomy, and helping others to learn it and see what's so beautiful and powerful about it. I will miss surfing at the front of astronomy research.

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67 responses so far

Previous post taken down

Jul 13 2007 Published by under Rant

It wasn't doing anybody any good, and it was only causing uproar and unhappiness.

I did have one or two positive comments (amidst 150, mind you), and one or two private e-mails appreciating that somebody else has the same reaction as I. In the end, though, it was a mistake to publish it. Those who react similarly to me will do so regardless of what I say, and it's clear that the vast, vast majority of the readership here does not. As such, I'm not doing any good by expressing my frustration about what all of this says about scienceblogs.

I apologize to the other science bloggers for any upset I've caused.

42 responses so far

Should you take your kids to the Creation Museum?

Jul 09 2007 Published by under Science & Religion

This is from a letter to the editor that was published in The Tennessean about a month ago. In the "Issues" section on Sunday, they had a page devoted to this, and this time they actually published a long (more than 250 word) letter that I'd written. I had seen, a week previously, that they were going to do this, looking for opinions on the question, "should you take your kids to the Creation Museum?".

I saw in the Issues section of the paper today that you will be doing an
op-ed on the Creation Museum, and you are soliciting comments.

Before I start, I want to make it clear that I comment as both a
scientist and a Christian. I am sure that your op-ed will strive for
some sort of "balance" by trying to present people both for and against
the Creation museum, but I strongly want to urge you to consider that
position. The Creation museum represents ignorance of the worst sort.
The fact that so many people come to defend it shouldn't be taken as a
reason to present "both sides" in an article about the museum, but
should be taken as a disturbing indication of how deep and widespread
scientific ignorance is in this country. What's more, it dismays me
that creationists are, at least in the public eye, being allowed to
define what "Christian" is, and are being allowed to set up a conflict
between science and Christianity that does not need to exist.

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40 responses so far

A New Proposal Failure Mode

Jul 06 2007 Published by under Rant, The Business of Astronomy

Before I say this, let me preface my remarks with the statement that I understand the reasoning of the Time Allocation Committtee (TAC), and it's not an insane decision. It's as I predicted; they're worried that the observations are too hard because the targets are faint. My collaborator and I knew this going into the proposal, but thought it was worth a shot.

I just got back the NOAO TAC report for a proposal I wrote for 5 nights on the WIYN 3.5m telescope this year. I know form inside information that this semester, the telescope was not very oversubscribed-- the number of nights requested was only 10% or so more than.the number of nights available As such, I felt optimistic that our proposal would be scheduled, and was surprised when I found out it wasn't.

The report contains these two bits of information:

  • Ranked in the top quartile of all requests on this telescope.
  • Nights Granted: None

Although I've already said I understand the decision, I do have to notice that even the proposals that are (relatively) highly ranked by the committees that read them come out as failures!


7 responses so far

Newton's Laws in Science Fiction TV and Movies

Chad notes, in response to PZ's rather absurd assertion that biology is the only Dumped Upon science, and that physics is so well treated in movies and TV, that "Most of the SF movies I see are lucky if they can get Newton's Laws right, let alone any of the finer points of astrophysics."

Indeed, this was the topic of one of the two talks I gave at Hypericon a couple of weeks ago.

Let me try to explain one aspect of this: specifically, the motion of space fighters.

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33 responses so far

A better model for funding astronomy?

Jul 02 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, The Business of Astronomy

The current way we fund astronomy research in this country is
horribly flawed. There must be a better way. Let me suggest one that I
believe that we should consider.

Now, yes, you are all going to be cynical and say, "Rob thinks it's
flawed because he's had trouble getting funding, and the main flaw is
that he doesn't have any funding." While it is true that I have been
burned by the system, and am admittedly bitter about that, I think that
there are rational arguments for my case.

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16 responses so far

Catherine Moody, Second Life Pianist

Jul 01 2007 Published by under Second Life

Second Life isn't a game, exactly. Some call it that, and indeed it is sometimes compared to various massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs). Really, though, Second Life is a virtual online world— it's not really a game, and there aren't a lot of default "gameplay" elements. Some call it "Web 3.0," but I think that sort of misses the point; it's not really the next version of the web.

Of course, what with it not being a game, one thing that people ask is, what do you do there? There are a lot of things to do. I enjoy building stuff. You can talk to friends, just like Internet instant messaging or chat software (going back to IRC and VMS Phone and Unix Talk and doubtless other things I don't know about) without a virtual presence. And, one thing you can do is go to live music concerts; there do tend to be quite a number of them. A Second Life resident will perform, using a live stream which is then piped to your computer.


A couple of hours ago, I went to a concert by Catherine Moody. She's a classical pianist who performs fairly frequently in Second Life, and is, as Second Life residents go, moderately well known. She's given four concerts in the last week as part of the whole "Second Life Fourth Birthday" celebration. And, she's quite good. As I understand it, the RL ("Real Life") counterpart of Catherine plays on an electric keyboard, whose output is connected directly to the stream. We didn't hear Catherine's voice at all. Sometimes, with live music performances, it's clear that it's a mic or some such connected to the stream, as there is singing, and banter between numbers. Catherine must have had her computer right next to her, because she typed the (brief) banter and told us what she would play next.

This is the first concert of Catherine's that I've made it to, and I hope to make it to more in the future.

For the rest of you, if you get into Second Life and are wondering what to do: check out some live music concerts.

6 responses so far

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